Strictly No Racism – even in private
The reaction to dancer Anton du Beke’s dodgy joke shows that official ‘anti-racism’ is an insidious form of censorship.
Who’d have thought that behind the end-of-the-pier glamour of the BBC’s ballroom-dancing show, Strictly Come Dancing, a volcano of race hate has been erupting? That at least is what one would think based on the UK media stories emerging over the past few days.
And what is the source of this so-called race row? Sequined crosses burning in the dressing rooms? Forced segregation in the Pasodoble? No, it has involved the dancer and TV presenter Anton Du Beke, real name Tony Beke, making a silly joke to his dance partner, actress Laila Rouass, during an unfilmed practice session.
It seems that two weeks ago Rouass, whose mother is Indian and father Morrocan, emerged from the BBC’s Star Bar having just had quite a severe fake-tan session. Beke caught one glimpse of her Dale Wintonesque appearance and quipped, quick as a flash, ‘Oh my god, you look like a Paki’. In Beke’s head, it was probably hilarious. Unfortunately, outside of Beke’s head the audience was not quite as simple-minded. Rouass, who had apparently already been annoyed by Beke’s numbskulled exclamation upon discovering her foreign parentage – ‘You’re not a terrorist are you?’ – glared at him in silence for a bit, before collecting her stuff from the dressing room and going home in a huff (1).
And that was that. They made up shortly after. And they’re still dancing together on the show. A race-storm in a teacup?
Unfortunately not. What should have been a non-story based upon an ill-judged comment from a ballroom dancer with a gob to match his formidable chin, has become something else since the News of the World published details of the minor falling-out at the weekend. It is now a cause célèbre for the eagerly offended, a case of racism for which the protagonist, Latin pants or not, must be made to atone, possibly with his job.
Apparently 63 people have already contacted the BBC to complain. It’s not a large number, but given that only 15 people were present when Beke ventured his tanned observation, that’s still 48 with far too much time on their hands. Politicians, meanwhile, have already spotted an opportunity to prove their anti-racist credentials, with Labour MP Parmjit Dhanda declaring: ‘[That] kind of language is totally unacceptable. It sounds to me as if Anton Du Beke needs to be sent on a race awareness course.’ (2) Which sounds like a great idea. Perhaps they could turn it into a show – Strictly No Racism. Each week, the famously deficient in ‘race awareness’, such as Prince Harry or Ron Atkinson, perform innocuous social interactions with their racism awareness councillors, after which a panel of thin-skinned judges gives them marks out of 10 for inoffensiveness.
Beke may not be ‘race aware’, but he clearly knows the post-offence protocol. Absolute contrition. ‘I apologise unreservedly for any offence my actions might have caused’, he said. But interestingly he also went further: ‘I must say immediately and categorically that I am not a racist and that I do not use racist language. During the course of rehearsals Laila and I have exchanged a great deal of banter entirely in jest, and two weeks ago there was an occasion when this term [Paki] was used between the two of us. There was no racist intent whatsoever, but I accept that it is a term which causes offence and I regret my use of it, which was done without thought or consideration of how others would react.’ (3)
It is a strange kind of apology, but it is also very revealing. He is sorry not for what he has said, but for how others might have interpreted what he has said. He is ‘categorically’ not a racist, but he apologises for how others might have perceived him as being one. This bizarre logic captures the nature of modern racism. Firstly, it pays no heed to intent, and secondly, it disregards context. All that is required for a comment to be indicative of racism is that one person, whether the intended recipient or merely someone who overheard or even read about the exchange, can experience the use of a particular word as offensive. Hence what was intended as a joke in the terms of a banter-filled relationship, becomes ‘racism’ because someone one can perceive it as such.
Little wonder that a spokesman for Hope Not Hate, a campaign run by the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, was therefore able to conclude: ‘If calling someone a Paki is not racist behaviour then what is? Quite simply the programme has to ask itself, is it going to condone racism on its show or is it going to deal with it quickly and decisively? The BBC took a clear line on the Carol Thatcher golliwog comment [she was sacked]. If anything this comment is even more offensive.’ (4)
‘If calling someone a Paki is not racist behaviour then what it is?’ And therein lies the rub. What exactly is racist behaviour these days? In the past, the definition would have been far clearer: beating someone up because they were a ‘Paki’; not giving a job to someone on the because of their skin colour, demanding someone is ‘sent back to where they came from’ because of their ethnic background. In each case, action and intention were seen as indissociable. Racists were grasped as conscious agents of, well, racist actions.
But in the case of Beke it’s different. Intent and action are all too severable. Hence what for him was a joke becomes racist in the eyes of others. Racism today does not have conscious protagonists, as it did in the past, but accidental interlocutors. It is less a case of race-ists, of conscious actors, but of race-ism, and its unconscious vehicles. Language itself is transformed. Words cease to be a medium of communication, to be used and manipulated as people see fit. Rather they are autonomous, capable of effects their human objects are powerless to withstand. So when Beke used the word ‘Paki’, he unleashed a force that went far beyond the specific tanning context and jokey intention. He gave vent to racism.
As spiked writers have pointed out before, the terms of such a reframing of racism were enshrined in the 1999 Macpherson report into the police investigation of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 (5). There Sir Macpherson provided a broad definition of racism as ‘unwitting racism’. Writing of the police, he wrote that such racism ‘can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.’ And if people do not know that they are racist, not to worry; it is enough for others to judge them as such. Or in the words of the report, racism is evident in ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or by any other person’ (6). It is in these terms that Beke is guilty as charged.
While racism is certainly not what it was, neither is anti-racism. Being against racism, the act of taking offence, almost always on others’ behalf, has become a self-affirming posture for politicians and media proxies alike, a moral crusade in times of limited purpose. Unfortunately, the transformation of racism into an abstract force above and beyond its flawed human subjects, to be fought and struggled against by contemporary anti-racists, has reduced those human subjects to mere objects of official censure. Even the most informal of social relations, the most knotted of negotiations, are now fodder for official anti-racists to pick over and dissect for offence potential. The effect has been stifling and petty. Contemporary Britain resembles not so much a comedy, as a tragedy of manners.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Previously on spiked
Brendan O’Neill wrote about Jade Goody and the tyranny of anti-racism and discussed the Big Brother ‘nigger’ row. Neil Davenport discussed Morrissey’s dodgy nationalist statements. Mick Hume looked at the ever-expanding category of racial victimhood. Adrian Hart argued that official anti-racism is bad for black children. Or read more at spiked issue Race.
(1) Anton ‘Paki’ Slur, News of the World, 4 October 2009
(2) Anton Du Beke should be sacked after Paki comment, say anti-racism campaigners, Mirror, 5 October 2009
(3) Strictly Come Dancing: Anton Du Beke apologises over racist term, Guardian, 5 October 2009
(4) BBC stands by race row Du Beke, BBC News, 5 October 2009
(5) See Macpherson report: keeping our wits about us, by Mick Hume, 20 April 2001
(6) Cited in Macpherson report: keeping our wits about us, by Mick Hume, 20 April 2001